There comes a certain point in a sports fan's life when you learn to accept that you can be a fan of a certain sport without being a fan of any specific athletes, or athletes in general. If you're lucky, it happens early, hopefully just when a favorite player gets traded and not when he's busted for PEDs, says racist things in an interview, and/or is generally exactly how you'd expect an overgrown meathead with half a degree in landscaping technologies from Arizona State's night school to act.
Lord knows that every major sports league keeps its athletes on as tight a leash as possible, pushes them to be involved in charity and promotes the shit out of anything resembling an athlete's human interest story (Manti Teo, 'ello!). In the end, however, no matter how much we wish it were so, being great at a sport does not automatically make a pro athlete a great person, and the higher the pedestal we put those winning athletes on (Lance Armstrong, Oscar Pistorius), the harder they fall.
That's why I wish more people knew about Ryan Westmoreland. A Red Sox prospect who never played in a major league game and recently had to retire at the age of 22, Westmoreland, as sappy as it sounds, is fully deserving of hero worship. Normally, I try not to learn too much about minor leaguers, because I've learned over the years that it's like naming the livestock: don't get too attached because you're just going to slaughter/trade them, anyway.
I first heard about Westmoreland after all the hype surrounding his signing and his first and only excellent season in single-A ball, but I didn't get invested until right before his second season, when he had to have surgery on a cavernous malformation in his brainstem. He became your classic ESPN human interest story: hot-shot prospect suddenly discovers he needs brain surgery and subsequently puts 110% into getting back to the field.
He went with remarkable speed from relearning to walk to taking live pitches in batting practice. Only a year after the surgery, getting back to single-A seemed within reach.
And then... he needed surgery again.
Ryan Westmoreland came to Red Sox spring training with a cane this year, and officially retired from baseball a couple of weeks later at the age most kids graduate from college. The second surgery had left him incapable of playing baseball at a professional level, so despite everything he had going for him and everything he worked for during that first round of rehab, he realized it wasn't going to happen and he gracefully walked away from the sport.
Ryan Westmoreland's not going to be in a Dunkin' Donuts ad, or see little kids wearing his jersey, or do all the things that players who put up good numbers and win rings get to do. But his recovery—whether he plays baseball again or not—was a genuine testament to the sportsmanlike character of perseverance, courage, and commitment that we want our pro athletes to embody.
The Red Sox are honoring Westmoreland's contract and paying for his first two years of college, so that's probably where he's heading next, and hopefully for a real degree, since he seems to have so much more going for him than athletic talent. Of all the shitty human interest stories pro-sports have tried to throw in my face over the years, Ryan Westmoreland's is the only one to actually be interesting, to be human, and to deserve the hero title without reservation.